Same-sex couples are leading the way in putting ilobolo in its proper context

Fred Khumalo Watching You
Given and Nthabiseng Pvhormu tie the knot at Polokwane Bird Park, Limpopo, in a white wedding. Some gay couples have decided both parties should pay ilobolo. /SANDILE NDLOVU
Given and Nthabiseng Pvhormu tie the knot at Polokwane Bird Park, Limpopo, in a white wedding. Some gay couples have decided both parties should pay ilobolo. /SANDILE NDLOVU

Taking advantage of the not-so-recent passing of same-sex marriage legislation, couples have been publicly and colourfully walking down the aisle of late.

In and of itself, this is nothing to write home about. But what has been remarkable about the recent spate of same-sex marriages is that black South African queers have deliberately committed themselves to what might be considered the backward - in the world of queers at least - custom of ilobolo.

That has surprised many, considering the fact that same-sex relationships have over the years been dismissed by traditionalists as "unAfrican".

Then the question arises: what criteria are used to determine who in a same-sex relationship gets to pay ilobolo?

On a recent radio show, a couple explained that they'd decided that both parties would pay ilobolo. Why? Because, they argued, ilobolo was not about buying somebody. It was about bringing the families of the two parties together, building relationships, building a bigger family.

I was truly heartened by this response. Mainly because over the years I have been angered at how the noble custom of ilobolo has been turned into a get-rich-quick scam.

The parents of some girls would charge the would-be groom hundreds of thousands of rands in ilobolo, arguing that they had spent a lot of money educating their daughter. Payback time!

Having paid the exorbitant ilobolo fees, the hapless chap would still be expected to finance wedding proceedings.

As a result, a few months into the marriage, some couples would start fighting over finances.

The fights would sometimes escalate in violence and, ultimately, descend into divorce.

Originally, having received ilobolo from the would-be groom, the bride's family were supposed to use that money to finance the wedding ceremony.

They were supposed to also offer gifts to the groom's family. That way, there was no exploitation.

Ethical families would actually set aside some of the ilobolo money, to give back to the young couple when they start their own family.

The structure of ilobolo itself got distorted a long time ago. I will confine myself to Zulu tradition, because I come from that background.

Ask any Zulu person: "How many cows must a man pay, in whatever form, as part of ilobolo?" The answer would invariably be: "Eleven head of cattle." If you ask how the number 11 was arrived at, the retort would be: "It's our culture."

What many Zulu people do not know, is that this "our culture" of 11 cattle was actually dreamed up by a white man. Theophilus Shepstone, an erstwhile administrator in colonial Natal, was his name.

Taking advantage of the in-fighting within the Zulu royal family after the death of King Mpande, Shepstone proclaimed himself the "father of Zulus".

He is the one who crowned King Cetshwayo on September 1 1873. He then proceeded to make a number of proclamations that would govern Zulu pastoral life, including the standardisation of ilobolo. However, after Somtseu standardised it, it became Zulu culture.

What I've always argued is that culture, like society itself, evolves.

Which is why I laugh at self-appointed custodians of culture when they argue that same-sex relationships are not "our culture".

Now the queers, long condemned by traditionalists as an abomination, are leading the way in putting ilobolo in its proper context: it is not about buying a person. It is about building lifetime relationships between the two families.

Amen to that.

X